Last week, I argued that if the Navy wanted to play a major role in Afghanistan, it must prioritize soft power skills and the USN staff corp:

All the carrier strike groups in the world will not find victory in the mountains of Afghanistan. To win over the hearts and minds, McChrystal’s strategy requires a surge of a new sort: of nurses, doctors, dentists, engineers, and civil-affairs units, the domain of the staff corp officer.

Needless to say, this argument stirred up a hornets’ nest from line officers and USNI readers. Exactly zero commenters agreed with me. In a 350 word reply, Admiral John. C. Harvey of U.S. Fleet Forces Command claimed the “post appears to be an argument in search of the facts to support it“.

First, a big thanks to everyone that replied. It was great to see USNI readers at their best, challenging an argument with intelligent critiques and counters. I enjoy them immensely. Second, I am unpersuaded by the counterarguments. In the coming weeks I will publish a follow-up response. I meant to write a reply sooner, but Obama’s Afghanistan speech rightly took my and everyone’s attention. Third, Cdr. James Kraska of the Naval War College has a new article in Orbis magazine taking exact opposite position from my own:

An entire generation of [its] mid-career commissioned and noncommissioned officers tried to learn counterinsurgency land warfare in the desert and mountains of central Asia while their counterparts in China conducted fleet exercises to learn how to destroy them.

I am still searching for a full copy of the article online, but Tom Ricks has some good comments.

Without having read the article, I cannot say much. But, I will say that the “China threat” is an overused justification for ignoring current conflicts. The global economy has integrated Chinese and United States markets to such a degree that full scale war is not in the interest of either countries for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the amount of US debt owned by China has only solidified the countries mutual dependence. Any major conflict would threaten both Chinese markets and revenue from US debt repayments. For better or worse, we need each other. There are threats in the world, but a Chinese Pearl Harbor is not one of them.

Update: Thanks to a few USNI readers for getting me a copy of the article.




Posted by Christopher Albon in Navy, Soft Power


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  • Derrick

    I doubt China and the USA will ever share a similar relationship to what the USA had with the former USSR, mostly due to the economic dependencies. However, I don’t think anyone can stop China from modernizing/strengthening its military, or discourage China from building a blue-water navy, simply because like the US, their economy is dependent on foreign resources so they will try different means of protecting their economic dependencies. That being said, it would still be prudent to keep US forces in the Pacific theater at an acceptable level to deter Chinese military aggression against smaller/weaker powers. I still believe in the old Reagan saying about peace through strength…

    Recognizing China won’t be the same type of challenge to the US as the former USSR was, it may be good to have regular joint military exercises with them, to promote communication and understanding. A good starting point would be cooperation in combatting the Somali pirate threat, which they are already involved in.

    As for sinking the George Washington, well, someone who is more a subject matter expert on this particular issue posted something in a blog about China’s anti-carrier ballistic missile, and from what little I could understand, it would be a lot more difficult than what the Chinese military can do right now.

  • http://warandhealth.com/ Christopher Albon

    “That being said, it would still be prudent to keep US forces in the Pacific theater at an acceptable level to deter Chinese military aggression against smaller/weaker powers. I still believe in the old Reagan saying about peace through strength…”

    This is true. The Navy certainly has a role to play, if only to counter PLAN gunboat diplomacy. But the author’s fictional Chinese attack of a US super-carrier is just that… fiction.

  • RickWilmes

    ” To win over the hearts and minds, McChrystal’s strategy requires a surge of a new sort: of nurses, doctors, dentists, engineers, and civil-affairs units, the domain of the staff corp officer.”

    Such an approach will fail for two reasons.

    1.  Islamic totalitarianism is not compatible with Western values that make the existence of nurses, doctors, dentists, etc. possible.

    2.  The American taxpayer will not pay for such a misguided plan.

  • LA Grant, CDR (ret)

    “The global economy has integrated Chinese and United States markets to such a degree that full scale war is not in the interest of either countries for the foreseeable future…. Any major conflict would threaten both Chinese markets and revenue from US debt repayments. For better or worse, we need each other.”

    This statement is analogous to one used in the past (almost word for word) to describe a (then) contemporary diplomatic and economic environment. While the current statement is not yet verifiable, historical evidence of the previous statement’s accuracy exists. It’s called World War One.

    I’m certainly not suggesting that relations are on the verge of failing, but this assertion is based entirely upon faith in current conditions continuing and not on history or sound reasoning. Point to a single occasion when have current conditions ever continued. Change — that’s the way to bet.

  • http://warandhealth.com/ Christopher Albon

    “Point to a single occasion when have current conditions ever continued.”

    Economic integration and mutual dependence created peace in Europe.

  • http://newwars.wordpress.com Mike Burleson

    “I will say that the “China threat” is an overused justification for ignoring current conflicts.”

    Well put Christopher. I an doubtful that carriers will be much use against China anyway since our short range fighters can’t do much to contend with China intent to keep us out of the Taiwan Straits. Regular readers of the USNI blog know of which I speak.

    I am also sorry that I didn’t comment on your previous excellent post, but I understand the flack you get for speaking against the sacred carriers.The idea that the Navy might have other more urgent roles than deploying naval air seems beyond the grasp of the present culture, but it was not always so. Not since Operation Market Time in Vietnam has there been a dire need for cooperation with the land forces, but somehow we seem in a desperate hurry to pick a fight with China.

    Lets not rush it. Fight and win our present conflicts. These little wars have always provided sailors with vital warfighting skills as well as America her future naval leaders for tomorrow’s major sea battles. This we have known from the Barbary’s Wars onward, as some skills can’t be taught from video games and textbooks alone.

  • Chuck Hill

    Starting a war almost never looks logical in retrospect.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    The problem with the theory that two nations would never go to war because it would be ever so much smarter to trade with each other to their mutual economic benefit is the behavior of nations for the entire first half of the 20th century.

    It is good to live in a nice neighborhood. It is smart to have a burglar alarm and matching yard sign, a 12 ga shotgun which you clean on the front porch from time to time, and a yappy dog which you let out to chase birds in the back yard each day.

    Not to mention a strong Navy that helps out half way round the world suppressing pirates, visits liberty ports and shows the flag and rescues local folk after natural disasters.

    Deterrance. It’s not just for Boomers.

  • http://warandhealth.com/ Christopher Albon

    “The problem with the theory that two nations would never go to war because it would be ever so much smarter to trade with each other to their mutual economic benefit is the behavior of nations for the entire first half of the 20th century.”

    And the empirical data finds it works. Not always, but on average.

  • http://warandhealth.com/ Christopher Albon

    “Lets not rush it. Fight and win our present conflicts.”

    Agreed wholeheartedly. Embracing uncertainty (discussed in the new ACC) is about concentrating on current opponents more than potential future opponents.

  • Byron

    Here’s the thing about carriers: It’s one hell of a lot more comforting to know you have that big stick out there, trained, willing, and ready to project force and protect America and it’s interests than it is to have 2 carriers for a one ocean world and the rest either in repair cycle or in lay up. While we’re talking about that, don’t forget those Naval Aviators whose sharp edge is kept honed by constant training. Lose that ability and we are in the same shape we were on Dec. 7, 1941. Only the miracle of Midway and the desperate struggle of the Solomans campaign bought the US enough time to assemble the forces it needed to push the Japanese back. That is not a feat that could be accomplished today with todays shipbuilding practices and aquisition process. If war breaks out we will fight the whole thing with what we started with, not with what we hope we can come up with.

    Thinking that your friend today will be your friend 20 years form now, or even 10, is a foolish thing to do. The only constant is constant readiness.

    Last, but not least, every president at least once during his term has asked the question, “Where are the carriers?”. They ask this question because the big deck supercarrier is the only method of quickly getting to an area and applying more than a B-1 flyby out of Whitman AFB.

    Study your history: friendships and treaties can and will evaporate.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    CDR Grant’s point is correct. Not mutually exclusive to other possibilities, but correct.

    “Economic integration and mutual dependence created peace in Europe.”

    Such would be precisely what the foreign ministers of Europe shared as a viewpoint in the first decade of the 20th Century.

    The US-China relationship is a very complex one. The idea that somehow China lacks “understanding” of the US is indicative of our tendency to look at the whole world through occidental glasses. The PRC understands the United States far better than we do them.

    Yes, the Chinese have significant economic dependencies on the United States. But, if one pays attention, it is easy to see that the PRC is moving toward a polar reversal of that relationship. When? Remember, their view is LONG. Decades, even centuries. Not chopped up into 4 year election cycles/QDRs.

    Actions such as floating the Yuan may seem unlikely to Americans, as this might erase a considerable portion of the huge US debt totals they have bought. However, if the goal is a 50-year timeline for replacing the dollar on the world markets with first an international currency, and eventually the Yuan, then such an action is not only reasonable but probable. After all, how much time has the UK spent as the financial powerhouse of the world since the dollar replaced the pound on the world markets?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Chris A.
    “the empirical data finds it works. Not always, but on average.”

    That’s a weighted average. Empirical data says you win at Russian Roulette. The way the dice (or gun, here) are(is)loaded says it’s crazy to play. Check the weight of WWI, add the weight of Versailles, then the weight of the depression, and WWII. A lot of folks got snake eyes with those dice.

    How many lives? How many of them because Chamberlin thought diplomacy and rationality were the ticket, and fleet maintenance was useless overhead in a rational world?

    When you live in the fine big house behind a hedge and a wrought iron fence in the rough part of town, pay attention to your security system.

    Especially if you owe a lot of dough to the mob at the end of the street.

    It’s a cruel and evil world. As Mao said: “power grows from the muzzle of a gun.”

    We convinced them we had the balance of power in our favor in 1950. A lot has changed since then, but they remember. They also remember that toughs who think we are an easy take haven’t done well in the last 100 years. They are much more polite and careful. Sweep the Navy into the scrap heap, they will change their tune.

    “If you wish to live in peace, be prepared to go to war.” URR can give you the Roman who said that off the top of his head. Nothing new here in 2000 years.

  • Derrick

    I think the gist of the article was to not overly worry about China’s intentions, that’s all. For example, the threat of terrorism should be prioritized higher then China. Meanwhile, as China develops a blue water navy, the US should be increasing/modernizing its own in parallel with Chinese efforts. This doesn’t mean engage in an arms race, but rather keep the deterrent as a safety/bargaining chip, but also engage China in efforts of cooperation, such as joint exercises, treaties for open skies, etc…

    I thought during the Cold War the US and USSR militaries had regular joint exercises to avoid miscommunication?

    I am not sure the world could be categorized as cruel and evil, but I’m sure every nation has its own selfish interests and wishes to protect such interests. So there’s nothing wrong with the US or China doing the same.

  • RickWilmes

    The difference is that China is a totalitarian state that does not respect individual rights. The United States, in principle, does respect individual rights. So eventually our interests will clash. However, I am more concerned with our own government taking away our rights but that is another topic. The point is that in order for statist governments to survive they must either seize the wealth of their people or their neighbors. Until both countries discover the moral foundation that supports capitalism the threat of war will always be present.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Derrick:

    That would be “combined” exercises, meaning armed forces of more than one nation operating in support of a common objective.

    “Joint” means different armed forces within a single nation.

    All the combined US-Soviet communication exercises I remember hearing of were “no notice combined exercises of opportunity”, to use the term of art in vogue at the time.

    The most enjoyable fable from the period involved black rubber buckets artfully arranged to suggest previously unseen sensor arrays, in order to facilitate a visual inventory of the photographic equipment allowance of the Sov ship in the combined exercise. There may have been some peel and stick hazard and caution notices of various types pressed into unauthorized use. I wouldn’t know, I am just repeating irresponsible rumors overheard at a Christian Science Reading Room…

    Great fun.

  • LA Grant, CDR (ret)

    Christopher Albon Says: “Economic integration and mutual dependence created peace in Europe.”

    Not so much. Those things had to be combined with a large external threat and much American spending and troops within the continent of Europe. Those last two items created peace though only in Western Europe until the 1990s, which this assertion completely overlooks.

    If American retreats into isolationist navel-gazing and the Islamic cultural invasion of Europe continues, who can say what will happen there.

  • Guest

    Is this what really happened?

  • koala
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